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Football hooliganism’s links to organised crime

Thursday 23 June 2016

Recent disorder at the European football championships in France involving fans from a variety of nations, is a stark reminder that an uglier side to the oft-termed “beautiful game” is still alive and, possibly, quite well.

For many in England, the images and footage of hooligans careering through the streets of Marseille will be familiar – for decades hooliganism has been a staple of England’s domestic and international fixtures, earning it the unflattering metaphor of a “disease”. As a result, English football fans have earned a dubious reputation for engaging in heavy drinking, antisocial behaviour and violence at matches.

Although one must always interpret statistical measures of crime with caution and recognise their various shortcomings, during the past several years football-related violence – or hooliganism – has officially declined in England. Occasional outbursts of visible disorder do still occur at football matches, but these are not as regular as they were during the late 1980s when levels of football hooliganism in England reached their peak. Since then, increased TV coverage and corporate investment as well as alterations to stadiums, security, policing and a concerted effort to market football as an inclusive, family-oriented sport, have stimulated some quite dramatic transformations within the game.

Importantly though, as several criminologists have pointed out, these have occurred in tandem with transformations in the nature of football hooliganism too, which has assumed a more “organised” character and has been linked to other forms of criminal activity that take place away from stadiums and their immediate surroundings.

Violent communities

Recent research suggests that football hooliganism does seem to provide potential fertile ground for more organised, acquisitive criminal activities in several ways.

While the personal backgrounds of men who engage in football violence are certainly not homogenous, in most cases those that gravitate to hooligan “firms” are individuals who tend to already have some familiarity with violence, usually as perpetrators, victims and/or observers. Some of the men I have interviewed who are regularly involved in football hooliganism first witnessed violence in the communities they grew up in, slowly cultivating their own incipient reputations on the streets of these communities and in the secondary schools they attended.

Those regularly involved in football violence are often already associated with networks of men with violent reputations and that may also be involved in varying forms of criminality. If not, through regular association with football hooligan firms, they will inevitably come into contact with a range of individuals who may be engaged in acquisitive criminality.

In my own research with men involved in violent criminality in northern England, I encountered several individuals who through football-related violence at both domestic and international fixtures had moved into more “organised”, profitable forms of criminality, such as drug distribution. The violent reputations forged through engaging in football violence provided a personal resource that can be useful for ambitious, entrepreneurial men plying their trades in highly competitive and sometimes dangerous illegal markets.

But football hooligan firms also offer ideal contexts within which to distribute illicit substances, particularly cocaine, or other goods. Research conducted by criminologists Tammy Ayres and James Treadwell reveals the voracious appetite for cocaine among men involved in football violence, which some of them felt actually improved their fighting abilities. I certainly found this during my own research. I observed at first-hand men who associated with a football firm in the north of England regularly purchasing and consuming cocaine provided by local criminals. Drug consumption was considered an important part of the match day experience.

The contexts of football hooliganism and what might be termed “organised” crime should not be considered distinct, but potentially interrelated in several important ways. The focus in this piece has been on English football at a time when the official evidence being gathered on it is indicative of a decline in hooligan activity.

But the scenes from France – and the recent suggestion that the Russian ultras who have been heavily involved in disorder at the Euros may be linked to the Kremlin – certainly raises some important questions about the nature as well as the extent of contemporary football violence globally.